A Google+ Hangout with Paul and Aziz

Last month, Paul Salopek and his walking guide in Uzbekistan, Aziz Khalmuradov, joined classes from Chennai, India to Boulder, Colorado, United States for a Google+ Hangout. Paul and Aziz participated from Bukhara, a Silk Road city with a long history of cross-cultural exchange. The conversation was hosted by Liz Dawes Duraisingh and Sarah Sheya of Out of Eden Learn and was open to educators from our partner organizations, National Geographic and the Pulitzer Center, as well. In this blog post, I’ll highlight themes from the conversation, focusing in particular on four themes that animate the Out of Eden Walk.

Telling stories and finding connections

One class wanted to know how Paul thought he could help others in his role as a writer and an explorer. Paul replied, “My purpose, my mission with this project is storytelling,” adding that the Out of Eden Walk project particularly tries to engage with people who aren’t typically heard in mass media. Later, too, in response to a student question about a mantra for his work, Paul referenced the writer Barry Lopez’s words: “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Storytelling highlights our similarities as human beings and how interconnected we all are, Paul explained.

What are these similarities? One universal Paul observed during his walk is that nobody likes homework. More seriously, he told students who wanted to know about the schools he’d visited, “I think one thing unites all the kids I talk to and I see. It’s a tremendous enthusiasm to learn and to try to make their lives better through learning.”

Examining borders

The conversation also addressed the issue of borders, an important topic in Out of Eden Learn’s new Stories of Human Migration learning journey. An educator asked Paul how crossing borders shapes his interactions with people or helps him to find connections, and Paul reflected on the two-sided nature of borders – and not only in the literal sense. They are imaginary but also very concrete, he said, and they can be dividing lines or gateways. As an example of the latter, he referred to his own experience crossing the border from the United States into Mexico with his parents when he was six. For him, this experience was an “enormous gift” because it helped him to feel comfortable in other cultures and languages, enabling him to do the project he’s doing now.

Later, he talked about a high school graduate in the Republic of Georgia who, confronted with unemployment in his country, was trying to decide whether to cross national borders to look for work or to go on to college, despite not being sure if he would be able to get a job on the other side of it. Further, while responding to a question about compassion he’d experienced or observed, Paul spoke about seeing a tide of Syrian refugees crossing into a new country in bewilderment, fear, and shock at “having been stampeded out of their homes just literally minutes before,” and then also seeing how “these people are received by villagers on the opposite side of a border…where they automatically open their doors and bring out food and blankets.” He said, “One of the great lessons for me about this project is not to have fear,” particularly of people who appear different from us or with whom we are unfamiliar.

(Re-)connecting with the natural world

Aziz, who was born and raised in Uzbekistan, described how the walk has also deepened his connections to the natural world. He said that because he and Paul have so far mostly be in remote areas of the country, “You feel you are part of the nature” because most of what you see is nature: “sands, horizon, stars, moon.” He continued, “You evaluate this beauty once more, again and again. And you just understand how beautiful is our world. Our nature.”

Students were curious whether Paul and Aziz had encountered any dangerous bugs or animals. Aziz said they had seen some, but not gotten bitten. “I always told Paul that if they bite us, I will bite them back,” he said. The hot sun has challenged Paul and Aziz, but the natural world has also entertained them and helped them to take their minds off of some of the challenges of the journey.

Being buoyed by curiosity and relationships

Indeed, many students wanted to know about what kept Paul and Aziz motivated. Both highlighted the importance of their curiosity. Aziz explained that even though he’s in his own country, he still experiences things that are new to him during the walk. For Paul, a particular draw is connecting with new people every day. “I’m not really walking to places, I’m walking to people,” he said. He described how he finds his sense of home in these connections, noting that, “More and more, I feel like I am at home, no matter where I am.” In response to one class’s questions about how he builds relationships along his walk, Paul said moving slowly is central. He has the luxury of waiting. He can give people time to warm up to him.

Paul described the motivation he gets from the students participating in his walk from afar too – their insights, their questions, and their energy. And students also wanted to know about Paul and Aziz’s relationship with each other. “What is the strangest question Paul has asked you?” one class asked Aziz. “Every question might be a strange question, but that’s why I’m here. I need to take this question and resolve it,” Aziz replied, adding how he values the new challenges the walk brings. Paul described Aziz as being like a brother. The two have walked over 1,500 kilometers together so far.

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